A Lawrence author aims to spark conversations about drugs and addiction with a new book for tweens and their adult caregivers.
Sandra Issa’s allegory, “A Terrible and True Tale for Our Time,” introduces readers to King Pin — the maker of a substance “more powerful than any magic powder the world had ever seen.”
The evil and clever King Pin uses his trickery to trap children — Tommy, Kyra, Tyriel and others — by enslaving them to the pills his “minions and mules” manufacture and peddle. Geared toward 8- to 12-year-olds and their parents, teachers and counselors, Issa’s tale exposes King Pin’s ulterior motives and his love for power, money and greed at the expense of others.
For Issa, it’s not just a fictional tale. She lost her 18-year-old son in 2021 to lethal amounts of alcohol and the synthetic opioid fentanyl. She became a grief group facilitator for parents who’ve lost children to substance use disorders. No matter their age, those who die from drug use and addiction leave behind loved ones who battle stigmas and misunderstandings about what Issa describes as “the complex nature of these deaths.”
While trudging through the depths of loss and grief, Issa educated herself about fentanyl, addiction and the market for illicit drugs. Issa said she learned that “trying to stop the drug trade is like playing Whac-A-Mole.”
Because many children think they’re immortal, they need to be armed with knowledge before they’re tempted to try drugs, she said. Issa’s training and work in grief support facilitation also has shown her that playing the “woulda, shoulda, coulda game” is futile for parents. Issa views her book as a tool that offers an empowering and proactive approach.
“Once addiction gets a hold of somebody, the battle is almost impossible,” Issa said. “So that’s what prompted me to write the book. I didn’t see anything out there directed toward a young age group.”
The book is intended for pre-adolescents and adults to read aloud together and avoids warnings repeated in marketing campaigns such as “One pill can kill” or “Just say no.” Issa said conversations about illicit drugs should delve past the dangers they pose, especially as children mature and experiment with risks. Although Issa’s son intentionally took fentanyl, his overdose was accidental.
“I think these children need to know that they’re the pawns in someone else’s game,” Issa said. “There’s somebody behind that pill who is willing to sacrifice a child’s health, and they’re even willing to sacrifice a child’s life purely out of greed.”
A list of discussion questions and resources follows the short story. One of the prompts reiterates how the young characters could no longer feel happiness without taking a “magic pill.” It asks readers, “How would you feel if you lost the ability to experience happiness?”
Issa, who describes children’s poetry as her “first love” of writing, concludes the story with optimistic and confident prose: “We’ll fight until your power’s caught, And all your wealth has turned to naught. King Pin, we’ll bring you down!”
The book is illustrated by Italian artist Fabio Magnasciutti. Issa connected with the cartoonist in an online space for creators.
“When you look for children’s illustrators, a lot of the illustrations are lovely and happy and whimsical and perfect for a children’s book. That wasn’t what I was going for,” Issa said. “I needed something that was a little darker because of the content of the story, so that was why I was pulled to his illustrations, which I’m very happy with.”
Issa’s book offers hope, said Shawn Nocher, author and co-founder of Love in the Trenches, the not-for-profit support organization for parents of children with substance use disorders in which Issa participates as a grief group facilitator.
Nocher said “A Terrible and True Tale for Our Time” empowers young children, especially those who might have older siblings or family members experiencing substance use disorder. Nocher said she’d already witnessed its use with her 7-year-old grandchild as a segue to discuss a family member’s addiction recovery and the danger of consuming medications not medically prescribed.
“It helps to erase the shame associated with the illness and enables them to see individuals as victims of a disease (or a dark magic, if you will),” Nocher wrote in an email. “It can also help them understand that healing is possible.”
Nocher said Love in the Trenches would distribute Issa’s book at its family functions.
“It is the only resource I’ve come across that speaks to young children in such a way as to promote compassion and understanding about this crisis,” Nocher said.
Issa dedicates her book “To all the parents whose children succumbed to the terrible magic.” Her self-published book coincides with the second anniversary of the death of her son, Mohamadi Tompson Issa Jr.
Known as MJ, Issa’s son was smart, funny, sensitive, and a good friend, his mother said. MJ had many passions — football, fashion, streetwear and rap, to name a few.
“He played football, he loved crafting rap songs. He loved his dog. He loved me,” Issa said. “But there were concussions, there was COVID, there was the allure of drugs, and he got ensnared in addiction. And the world lost an amazing soul.”
Issa said she missed MJ’s hugs the most.
“He was very good at giving hugs,” she said.
Issa hopes to see the cautionary tale inspired by her family’s real-life experience on Lawrence store shelves and in classrooms across town, where MJ attended Cordley Elementary, the former South Middle School (now Billy Mills), and Lawrence and Free State High Schools.
“Ultimately, I would love for USD 497 to pick it up. I would love for school systems across the country to pick it up, and I would like to get it into the hands of educators and school guidance counselors, social workers, resource officers,” Issa said.
“A Terrible and True Tale for Our Time” is available online through Amazon.com.